Q From Jim McKelvey: I see that you covered big cheese on your site, but what about big shot?
A Ah, another of those “simple” questions.
People in the US started to use big shot for a celebrity or for an important or influential person around 1926–7. Within a year it had blossomed into a fashionable slang term with examples appearing everywhere, especially to describe the bosses of criminal gangs — in April 1930, the Lincoln Star of Nebraska remarked, “Unless the memory plays us a trick, Al Capone is the ‘big shot’ of Chicago gangland.”
Where it comes from is a surprisingly long story. From about 1400 on, the newly invented gun was divided into two types: small guns that could be carried by soldiers, such as the early types of musket, and the big guns or great guns, which were the heavy wheeled pieces like cannon. Though the terms are long since obsolete in formal terms, the phrase “big gun” remains common for a large piece of ordnance.
Around the 1830s, again in the USA, big gun began to be applied to men whose power and influence metaphorically rivalled that of these weapons — an Ohio paper in 1837 referred to the big guns of Tammany Hall in New York (this usage survives, of course, especially for a pre-eminent person in some field, especially in sports, indeed any substantial resource, even horses: “We will be relying on Kerrin to ride all our big guns and when we have more than one in a race we will go for the best available” — London Evening Standard, 5 June 2005).
The related term big shot came along around the middle of the nineteenth century, but to start with it was a literal description of a large bullet or shell. Around 1900 it starts to be recorded as a mining term. In July 1905, the Washington Post ran a story under the headline “BLAST KILLS EIGHT Hurled to Their Deaths by Premature Explosion”, on a railway construction accident near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It reported that a foreman had gone to the scene “to personally superintend the preparations for what is called a ‘big shot’ to be fired to-morrow morning. A ‘big shot’ consists of a series of blasts, the holes having been drilled in a row, and the charges being set off simultaneously by an electric spark.” Other reports of the time show that this was a standard term, not a one-off, and it was used figuratively as early as 1911 in an advertisement in an Ohio paper promoting a clearance sale: “It is now past the middle of May and we are going to take one ‘BIG SHOT’ at the remainder of the Stock at HALF and LESS.”
The next stage occurred sometime in the 1920s, when big shot began to be used for a crucial sporting contest, particularly in boxing. A good example — though not by any means the earliest — appeared in a Texas paper in 1926: “The first ‘big shot’ — as the boys call ’em — in Gene Tunney’s ring life was his battle with Georges Carpentier, the Frenchman.” By then it had shifted to also mean the opponent in such bouts (“He was having trouble making the weight and he was running out of big shot opponents” — Mexia Daily News, March 1925) and also to star performers, such as Jack Dempsey: “Not once since he became a big shot in the knuckling industry has he failed to show a heavy beard as he climbed through the ropes for an important battle” (Appleton Post Crescent, September 1926).
The move out of sports into mainstream life came soon after.